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Working Through a Pandemic (Part 2)

Smith interviews an expert on workplace disease control.

Smith Communication Partners can help you navigate the choppy waters and tidal wave of Covid-19 information and messages cascading over your business and employees.

One of Smith’s partner firms is Viven Health which has developed a unique hand hygiene training program that can be effective in protecting your employees from the coronavirus. Viven Health is led by Dr. Tom Ahrens, a research scientist who is an international authority on infectious diseases.  

We sat down with Dr. Tom recently to pose a number of questions we are receiving from clients and contacts about the coronavirus and how best to keep ourselves protected.  In our last communication, we presented a few high-level queries and answers on common coronavirus topics. Today we continue our session (part 1) with Dr. Tom to give you more insights on how to prepare for and deal with the new virus. Look for more updates from Smith in the coming weeks.

How important is it for people who are sick to stay home? We have a culture where people go to work unless they are really sick.

Very important!  There are three common symptoms of Covid 19: fever, cough and shortness of breath. You’re first going to see a fever and maybe body aches, much like a flu. If you have a fever, 100 degrees or higher, you absolutely need to stay home. Even if you have a mild experience, you need to stay home so you don’t infect others. 

Some of the news reports are discouraging people with mild to moderate symptoms from walking into the ER or their doctor’s office. Can telehealth medicine fill the gap here? 

Absolutely. We should be using telehealth enormously now. If you’re having trouble breathing, clearly go to the emergency room. But if your symptoms are manageable, use telehealth first and they will tell you if you need to go to the ER.

Unless you have a preexisting condition or happen to unfortunately be seriously affected, it sounds like COVID-19 is something you’ll be able to manage at home. What do people need to have on hand at home? 

Really, it’s no different than what you need to manage a cold or flu.

Once you get COVID-19, can you get it again?

Like with any virus, we anticipate we will develop an immunity to it. So, if someone is sick now, this coming fall they should have immunity and won’t get it again.

You’ve been talking about cold, flu, pneumonia, sepsis, and other viral and bacterial prevention for years now. It must be frustrating to have a proven method that could have made a difference in stemming the tide, but also hopeful in the sense that employers can have an impact on a go-forward basis.

Employers need to prepare and find ways to mitigate the loss of productivity. This is going to hit them and there is no way around this. I think we have 18 months of COVID-19 to go. This is going to be a long and drawn-out fight. In the meantime, we’ve got to get out and educate people on the best ways to mitigate infection. 

Keep in mind that Smith can help you build and implement your communications strategy around the coronavirus.  For more information, call your usual Smith contact or Don Sanford of Smith’s St. Louis office at 314.348.4687.

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Working Through a Pandemic (Part 1)

Smith interviews an expert on workplace disease control.

Smith Communication Partners can help you navigate the choppy waters and tidal wave of Covid-19 information and messages cascading over your business and employees.

One of Smith’s partner firms is Viven Health, which has developed a unique hand hygiene training program that can be effective in protecting your employees from the coronavirus. Viven Health is led by Dr. Tom Ahrens, a research scientist who is an international authority on infectious diseases.  

We sat down with Dr. Tom a few days ago to pose a number of questions we are receiving from clients and contacts about the coronavirus and how best to keep ourselves protected. We present some of the questions and answers here for your information and will post others in the coming days and weeks. This is the first of a two-part interview. 

Dr. Tom Ahrens, thank you for speaking with us. A lot of business continuity plans are focused on weather-related or terrorism-related events, which by nature are isolated to a specific location or region. How do organizations manage a rapidly spreading virus? 

The coronavirus is similar to the flu in how it spreads. It will generally concentrate in populated areas—the more crowded we are, the more likely we are to get an infection. Typically, if you get one of the two common types of flu viruses (type A or type B) you will infect two other people. This year in the United States almost 50 million people will get the flu. What we are seeing with COVID-19 at this early stage is an infection rate of three other people, with a projected infection of 100-150 million people, or one-third to one-half of our population.

Let’s talk about employers whose people can work remotely. Are we at a point where employers should require employees who are able to work remotely to stay home? 

Absolutely. This is the simplest way to control the spread of COVID-19. This isn’t rocket science. If you are close to someone, you are at risk. We want people to avoid crowded train and subway stations. Congregating in tight areas sends your risk level up. 

When those who can work from home do so, they are bringing down the risk level for those who must be present at work to do their job. Look, employers need to figure this out now. COVID-19 is going to be an issue this fall and winter. I think in 30-60 days we’ll see a drop because of warming temperatures but expect the virus to come back with a vengeance this coming fall and winter. 

So, we’re expecting coronavirus to have seasonality? You’re saying it will recede in the summer months and come back in the winter months? 

We’re not absolutely certain, but I think so. We’ll get an idea during the summer by watching the Southern hemisphere. If the virus picks up there during our summer, which is their winter, that will be our answer. 

Now, let’s turn to employers who need their folks on the ground to do their jobs. Healthcare, police, transit, public works, grocery stores, gas stations. What should employers be doing to proactively protect these employees?

It’s all about managing the chain of touchpoints. As much as you can, put a physical barrier between you and your customer. You want to reduce how much the customer can breathe on you. Also, there needs to be very careful handling of money. Let’s say I give you money and you have to handle it; you must keep your fingers out of your mouth, nose and eyes until you sanitize again. Any surface you subsequently touch before you sanitize again should be considered contaminated. But as you know, this applies to the cold, flu, any virus. 

Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Ahrens will be published tomorrow, March 19, 2020.

Keep in mind that Smith can help you build and implement your communications strategy around the coronavirus. For more information, call your usual Smith contact or call Don Sanford of Smith’s St. Louis office at 314.348.4687.

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Most Trusted

The emerging employer voice

Trust in government and media has been declining for the past twenty years. Conversely, trust in employers is at an all time high. This situation has created opportunities for employers to have a larger voice and to become a trusted source of information for employees and other audiences. 

Declining Trust

Two decades of wars, a major economic disruption, bitter partisanship and a fragmented media landscape have eroded public trust in both government and the news media.  

Both 9/11 and the Great Recession were cast as governmental failures to know, understand, regulate, prevent or warn the people about these catastrophes. Fairly or not, political parties have used these serious disruptions (along with more trivial issues) to relentlessly attack the other party’s governance. All of this has caused Americans’ trust in government to fall to historic lows.

The news media is also suffering from very low trust metrics. Many factors are dragging their trust numbers down. 

  • Media fragmentation has replaced a single news narrative with a diversity of voices, sources and opinions. 
  • Partisan-focused news outlets like MSNBC , CNN and Fox News mix commentary and news.
  • News as entertainment has blurred the lines between the trivial and serious.
  • “Fake News,” encompassing everything from made up stories to media bias to foreign intervention, is undermining all media.

It has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for news consumers to know if the stories they’re getting should be trusted. 

2019 Edelman Trust Barometer p. 23

Rising Voice

Standing in relief to this decline, people’s trust in their employer is rising to unprecedented levels. This is fueled by a general hunger for reliable information and trustworthy institutions and by a shift in the role employers are playing in employees’ lives. 

The employer/employee relationship is established and well understood as both interdependent and mutually beneficial. Employees know that their company views them as a human resource, but they also understand that their company places a high value on that resource.

New approaches to Human Resources, especially benefits administration, have turned employers into information repositories on key issues like:

  • Healthcare consumerism
  • Wellness
  • Education
  • Financial planning
  • Retirement

The information companies provide is accurate and balanced because legal and fiduciary responsibilities lead to careful vetting of all information. Reliable, non-biased information is what the public is craving and what employers are increasingly providing. 

Opportunities and Responsibilities 

This convergence creates opportunities to build on this moment of trust. Employers willing to fill this trust gap can gain a competitive advantage. But this is not a trivial exercise; becoming a trusted source of information is not only an opportunity, it is also a responsibility.   

Provide Clarity. By providing useful, vetted information, employers create real value and comfort for their employees. 

Consider the current Novel Coronavirus outbreak. The spread of this disease is real and will likely affect workers in the U.S. over the next two years. However, news surrounding this outbreak is often sensationalized and the issue is being politicized in an election year. This serious issue needs clarity.

This article from SHRM (Society for Human Resource Managers) is a good example of sharing relevant information. It encapsulates the issue and provides links to many sources of (presumably vetted) information. 

Information like this is fairly easy to assemble and incredibly useful. Employees are provided with reliable information that goes far beyond what they would get from the evening news and that would be difficult to gather on their own. Employees are empowered and prepared because they are informed. 

Create dedicated channels.  Employees need to know where to go for information. Depending on employee populations and budgets, information channels can range from printed newsletters to email distributions to dedicated websites to mobile apps. The type of channel isn’t as critical as accessibility and consistency. 

Keep the channel clean and flowing. Avoid the temptation to use the channel for other messaging. A dedicated channel is more effective and more likely to be read than one that becomes a hodgepodge of unrelated messages. 

Information must be current and archives need to be maintained. It’s critical to use your dedicated channel frequently. It isn’t necessary to create daily content, but at least once a week will keep the channel relevant.  

Facilitate peer networks. One of the reasons employees trust employers is that they are both working on the same team. Information flows should mirror that sense of community and cooperation.  

ESM (Enterprise Social Media) is an excellent platform for employees to interact around the information provided by the company. Having a voice encourages engagement and adoption of critical ideas.

Many employers have concerns about social media within work environments. They worry about divisive voices, discontent and other negatives. Facilitating social media interactions around specific information can mitigate these concerns. 

Peer-to-peer communication around specific articles and channels can be easily and effectively managed. The information at hand guides the discussion, not the whims of users. Conversations on serious platform around important information will naturally be more focused than anonymous public social media. Within a company’s intranet, these platforms can also be managed more energetically. 

The upside is really high. Users who engage with content are typically more informed than those who don’t. These users become partners with your content. They help to explain, curate and promote understanding on social networks. Social media influencers make information dynamic through their advocacy. Look for these people and encourage them. 

Avoid bad information. Carefully curate and vet any information your company disseminates. You won’t have a story about everything, and that’s ok. Your content flow won’t have the punch of mass media, and that’s a good thing.

The aim is confidence. Provide information that is reliable, well sourced and actionable. This is more important than timeliness, entertainment or sensation (all hallmarks of today’s news media). The goal is providing a regular source of information for your specific audience. 

Don’t overreach. Controversy and politics may sell newspapers, but they harm work environments. Avoid taking any political position that cannot be clearly and specifically be connected to the wellbeing of your industry, company or employee population. 

There will be those inside and outside the organization who want to use your informational platform to sway employee opinion. These interests act for their own purposes, not necessarily the organization’s. Their goals are short term. To become a trusted resource, an employer must act responsibly and steadily over the long term.    

Build on the Moment

That employers have become a trusted institution is surprising until you look at the reason behind the rise. Employers are more and more an important information source for their employees. Those who understand where we are and who become intentional in their approach can build on this moment to form lasting partnerships with their employees. 

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You Are What You Say

(and how you say it)

Understanding and Describing Your Verbal Identity

When it comes to brand identities, the visual components, like logos, colors and photos, get most of the attention. That makes sense. About 30 percent of the human cortex is devoted to visual processing, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearingThe human brain processes images 60,000 time faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visualThe eye itself is considered an outgrowth of the brain

But how we recognize, feel about and relate to brands is based on more than looks. The brand’s verbal identity — what the organization says and how it says it — matters, too.  If the visual and the verbal aren’t in sync, the effect can be anywhere from comical to catastrophic.

What’s a Verbal Identity?

Here’s a good enough definition of verbal identity, but when it comes to creating and/or managing one, I think it can help to break it down into these four components: voice, tone, style and message.

Voice: The overarching personality of your brand expressed through words in any content or communication you produce.Tone: The particular mood and feeling expressed through words in a particular communication or piece of content.
Style: Choices regarding writing and speaking conventions, including sentence construction, usage, grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization and pronunciation.Message: The information, idea and/or emotion the communication or content is trying to impart to the audience.

Voice vs. Tone

Let’s take a moment to distinguish “voice” from “tone” because they are often used together (voice and tone, or tone of voice) and sometimes they’re used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Basically, your voice should be consistent, but your tone should change based on the circumstances.

Voice signals identity; tone signals mood.

You can identify who’s speaking by their voice. You can tell how they feel — or want you to feel — by their tone. 

Your mom might have scolded you by saying, “Don’t take that tone with me!” But she probably never said, “Don’t take that voice with me!”

Voice is consistent; tone is contingent.

Changing or disguising your voice from one situation to the next could make you seem shifty or unbalanced. But, not changing your tone to suit the context or channel could make you sound robotic, uncaring or oblivious.

There are many voices; there are few distinguishable tones.

Each person’s voice is unique — at least as far we know. So, theoretically, each organization can have a unique voice as well.

Tone is more limited. According to work done by Nielsen Norman Group, there are only four distinguishable dimensions of tone: 

  1. Funny vs. Serious
  2. Casual vs. Formal
  3. Irreverent vs. Respectful
  4. Enthusiastic vs. Matter-of-fact

Here’s a Quick Way to Tell Voice and Tone Apart 

Let’s say you’re communicating an increase in your company’s 401(k) match. Imagine how you might approach it … 

… Oh, wait. Scratch that. The match isn’t increasing, it’s actually being eliminated. 

The things that would change from one scenario to the next are your message and tone. The things about the communication that wouldn’t change are probably part of your voice and style.

How to Describe a Verbal Identity

Every brand guidelines document I’ve ever seen addresses visual identity, but not every one addresses verbal identity. And, those that do typically don’t do it with the same consistency and precision used to specify the visual. 

This is understandable. Not only do visuals dominate our perceptions, but fundamental elements of a visual identity can be described with scientific precision. Colors can be specified by code numbers. Layouts can be defined by grids and measurements to the fraction of an inch. 

In comparison (and quite ironically) verbal identities can be hard to describe in words. There’s no equivalent of a Pantone number that identifies a word or phrase as being within the brand’s voice palette. That and, since just about everyone has a pen and a keyboard, just about everyone thinks that they can write well enough without much guidance.

Where graphic designers are given measurements, codes, files and photos to work with, writers typically get a handful of descriptors, like “conversational,” “smart,” “trustworthy,” and “respectful.” 

While HR is responsible for a great deal of content and communication that contributes to the overall employee experience, it usually does not own the organization’s brand identity. But, HR can and should maintain its own style guide as a subset of the organization’s brand guidelines.

Based on a review of the many brand guidelines documents we’ve gathered over the years, here are a few tips for creating a useful set of verbal identity guidelines. (The following assumes that your organization’s voice is described, at least to some degree, in its overall brand.)

1. Identify common categories of content and communications.

Focus on categories that make a difference, on those that might trigger a different tone. For example, do you communicate differently to recruits than you do to retirees or to the executive committee? Is there anything different about how you communicate about performance management than about your health and welfare benefits?

2. Provide examples. 

Alone, a few descriptive words or phrases don’t offer a writer much guidance. For example, one of the most common verbal identity descriptors I come across is “conversational.” A conversational tone among physicists is probably different from a conversational tone among web designers. Craft a few “do” and “don’t” paragraphs to clarify what you’re going for in each category.

3. Describe your tone(s) on a spectrum. 

As mentioned above, there are only so many distinguishable tones. You could spend hours combing through a thesaurus looking for the right descriptors, but is a writer going to know how to sound “progressive”? When describing your tone(s), try to confine yourself to the four dimensions below and plot each dimension on a spectrum. For example, “funny vs. serious” could be anything from “laugh out loud” to “pleasant” to “straight-faced”. Even with this more focused approach, there is still a great deal of variety and flexibility. But, be sure the tones you describe are compatible with your overall voice. I recall one of my high-school English teachers, a Jesuit priest who described himself as a “loveable curmudgeon.” His idea of being “funny” was reading a passage from To His Coy Mistress and then muttering that he “lived vicariously through literature.” It was funny in his voice, but it probably wouldn’t be funny in Amy Schumer’s.

From The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice, Nielsen Norman Group.

4. Have some style. 

If your organization’s brand standards don’t identify a style guide (e.g. Associated Press or Chicago Manual of Style), pick one. Also, make a list of your benefits, programs and key terms to confirm spellings and capitalizations. Is it medical plan or Medical Plan? Is it pretax or pre-tax?

5. Nail down some core messages. 

Over time, identify and catalog certain core messages and descriptors that really nail your voice and clearly communicate your intent. Think about it. How many different ways does Geico say “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance”? There’s very little, if any, variation. Consistent messaging and disciplined repetition can build recognition, accelerate understanding and burn your messages into memory.

Let’s Connect

Are you working on your organization’s or department’s verbal identity? Share your story with us. If you’d like some help, we’d love to hear your voice — no matter what tone you use.

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